Back in the fall I befriended another Southerner living in St. Louis. Our sons are in the same class at school.
She’s a talented physician, here finishing her second residency. We were sitting on a blanket in the September humidity at a parents’ luncheon or a soccer game. Making small talk as the conversation was about to turn big.
“You’re from The South too,” she said. “I hear the accent.”
“Yes, I grew up in North Carolina,” I said.
“Tennessee for me,” she said.
“How long you been here?” I said.
“Nine years.” she said. “You?”
“We’ve been in the Midwest going on 14 years,” I said. “Two in Chicago and 12 in St. Louis.”
Then we gave each other the look.
The look is difficult to explain. It’s kind of a rolling of the eyes, a nervous laugh, a heavy resigned sigh. More of an understanding than a look.
“We’ve been here all these years,” I said, “but still find it difficult to feel at home. And St. Louis is not The South.”
Her eyes popped open, wide as teacup saucers. “No, it’s not The South,” she said in a loud whisper. “I keep telling my husband that, and he says it’s all the same, but it’s not.”
“No,” I said, my own eyes wide now and my voice reverently low yet liberated. “It’s not.”
Here was a kindred soul. A Southern sister exiled in the Midwest.
Despite my bellowing I’m a Tarheel born and a Tarheel bred three hundred times to the Carolina fight song, I was not born in The South. I moved there when I was seven and stayed for 20 years.
At first I didn’t like it, especially the accents. Mostly because my new friends razzed me for not having one. Now those accents are so precious I nearly cry when I hear one in passing at the airport.
Without my knowledge, The South grew on me as I grew up in it. I only left for the promise of bustling Midwestern river towns. Work, work, always work.
Now 14 years later, I’m awake again and wondering how did I end up here? When’s the next train home?
Of course there are many, many good things about St. Louis and the Midwest. The Zoo, the Art Museum, the Arch, Forest Park, the Balloon Glow, the Cardinals, the Loop, frozen custard, gooey butter cake, Mai Lee.
Endless rows and rows of corn and soybeans stretching out over miles and miles of flat, flat land. Grayed prairies washed green and yellow and blue with a storm. It could grow on you. It could be home.
Life is complicated now. Can’t just pick up and move. How would my child adjust? What about school and church? What about the house? What about work, work, work?
Ran into my Southern soul sister at the Botanical Garden a few weekends ago. She’s in the last days of her medical training and has secured a job.
It’s in Birmingham.
Look homeward, angel. Look home.
All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. Psalm 38:9 NIV
What better way to end than with a country song complete with whiskey, tobacco and lonely. Savor the tender twang of Patty Loveless in A Thousand Times a Day.
A true Tarheel, Thomas Wolfe was born in Asheville, NC. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, his first novel, was published in 1929. It is believed to be autobiographical.